Deft Darragi giving Esperance hope

It's no coincidence that Esperance Sportive de Tunis playmaker Oussama Darragi is known as “Picasso.” A genuine artist on the ball, the 23-year-old boasts a broad palette of skills, among them a sharp eye for goal. That artistry and elegance will almost certainly come in useful when the Tunisians entertain Egypt’s Al Ahly in the second leg of their CAF Champions League semi-final in Tunis on Sunday.

Le Taraji gave themselves a chance of ousting the six-time champions by restricting them to a 2-1 win in Cairo. And the man responsible for keeping them within touching distance of the final was none other than Darragi. With his side trailing 2-0, the inspirational midfielder pounced on a mistake in the Al Ahly rearguard to score a vital away goal and raise the Tunisians’ hopes of winning the continental crown for only the second time.

In relaxed mood prior to this weekend’s date with destiny, Esperance’s resident genius spoke exclusively to about the challenges of starring for club and country and his goals for the future. “I feel pretty calm because I know we’ve got the ability to get through to the final, which is what we’re all aiming for,” he says with a maturity that belies his young age. “I don’t feel any extra pressure just because I’m the captain. I think I’ve acquired enough experience not only to handle the pressure but to use it positively.”

A born winner
An Esperance player since 2007, Darragi’s influence at the club has grown with each passing season. Collecting winner’s medals in the Tunisian Cup and the North African Cup Winners Cup in his first year with the Tunis giants, he came into his own in the second, helping his side to the league title and the Arab Club Champions Cup and picking up the 2009 Tunisian Player of the Year award.

His rapid development continued last season. Playing a key role in another championship triumph, Darragi also nailed down his place in the national side, although his efforts were not enough to secure a place for the Carthage Eagles at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.

It’s all going to come down to the smallest of details, a half-chance in front of goal or an inspired piece of defending.
Darragi ahead of the Al Ahly clash in Tunis

"We still haven’t come to terms with it really,” he admits, struggling to conceal his dejection at a rare blemish on his career record. “We’ll need a bit of time, patience and some good results to get over it and look to the future again.”

The Esperance star is sure to be a part of that future, which could well include an appearance at the 2012 CAF African Cup of Nations, an objective Tunisia moved closer to realising after downing Togo 2-1 in a qualifying match last Sunday. Not surprisingly, he had a hand in his side’s late winner, skilfully teeing up fellow substitute Amine Chermiti with an inch-perfect lobbed pass. “If you want to become a key player in the national team you need to establish yourself and produce your best form again and again,” says the hero of the hour, playing down his contribution in the win.

A brush with La Liga?
Second in their group behind Botswana, whom they face at home next month, Tunisia are fighting hard to return to the African elite. Yet as Darragi freely admits, they still have plenty of ground to make up on the likes of Côte d’Ivoire, currently the strongest outfit on the continent in his opinion.

In the meantime he has plenty of vital club business to attend to, starting with that return fixture against Al Ahly. “It’s all going to come down to the smallest of details, a half-chance in front of goal or an inspired piece of defending. That goal I scored in the first leg could turn out to be priceless, although one thing’s for sure: keeping our concentration is going to be vital.”

Should the Tunisians prevail on Sunday, they will move a step closer to a coveted place at this December’s FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2010, not that the deadly Darragi is looking that far ahead: “It would be fantastic get there and it’s something every player wants to experience at least once in their career. But this isn’t the time to start thinking about that. We’ll have plenty of time for that later.”

The talented twenty-something also has plenty of time to forge a career further afield, with Europe an obvious destination of choice. “Who wouldn’t want to play there?” he concludes. “And right now, I’d have to say the Spanish league is the most exciting of them all."